Films You Really Should Have Seen: Leon
In the year of the film’s 20th anniversary it wasn’t a difficult decision to put Leon forward for my Films You Should Have Seen. It was the first film I owned on DVD and it was the first film I owned on Blu Ray. It really is a must see as it has now become a cult classic, and it is one of those films people talk about time and time again.
I first saw Leon (Or The Professional if you’re American) in my early teens and quickly fell for the film in a number of ways. I’ve watched it perhaps a couple of dozen times since then and I am sure each time it gets a little better. At first I’m sure I enjoyed the film for what it is, an excellent piece of cinema, without really knowing why. Over the years I have come to see a little more with each viewing and now, fully in love with the film, I advise any who have not seen it to do so as soon as humanly possible. Here is why.
The cast and director are not exactly short of their own fan base today, and I could encourage anyone to watch the film based solely on the presence of Academy Award winners and nominees like Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman. In Leon, all play their parts supremely well. Portman shows that unlike many child actors, she was mature beyond her years and portrays a range of emotions that is frankly staggering for a twelve year old. She also handles the gripping and awkward sexual tension between her young character and Jean Reno’s hitman perfectly. Jean Reno, a regular in the works of Luc Besson, reacts brilliantly when Mathilda tells him she loves him on several occasions and demands a kiss in another. This theme added a fair amount of controversy to the film and was actually toned down for its release.
Then Gary Oldman, also a familiar face to Luc Besson’s work (see also The Fifth Element), shines as corrupt DEA agent Stansfield. The character is maniacal, certifiably insane and a drug addict to top it off. Oldman brought this despicable personality to life with ticks like shaking his drug stash by his ear and the way he pops his pills the same way each time. The cool and collected way Stansfield wields his shotgun around the apartment while his goons are nervy and panicky sets the man apart from mere criminals. He is actually mad and as an audience it is hard to deny the ferocity of the performance that brings that madness to life.
Luc Besson had made a name for himself by the early nineties with his films The Big Blue (1988) and Nikita (1990). Both films featured Jean Reno with the later even seeing him play a “cleaner” who dresses suspiciously like Leon himself. It is something I love dearly in film making and there are fewer ways to endear a film to me than paying attention to detail. Wonderfully overlooked and rarely identified, Besson plays the real time card in Leon with Stansfield’s (Oldman) timing. After he tells Mathilda’s father he will be back at noon, we see a clock in Leon’s apartment tick over to 11:58 and the following sequence takes precisely two minutes.
It is a surprising film, as it combines quality action that is well shot and paced with an emotional story that is gripping and enthralling enough to watch without the bloodshed. The relationships are evident immediately, between Mathilda and her family, Leon and Tony and then Leon and Mathilda after the incident (I’m deliberately staying spoiler free where I can). This only comes with a great script and a great cast who really understand the characters. It adds up to a thematic and emotional roller coaster and includes comedy, sorrow, pain, redemption, great action and of course revenge.
On top of this, in a film that would get away with being dreary and dull to look at, it is beautifully shot. The Blu Ray (which I recommend wholeheartedly) looks fantastic and there are more than a few poster frames. Mathilda and Leon in silhouette walking down the street, the spiral staircase where we learn of Leon’s skills, singular perspective shots of the corridor and of course, Mathilda sat in the window frame.
Leon is a thoroughly gripping story told by an incredible cast with stunning performances and really, really deserves to be seen.